GREAT FALLS — In a unanimous vote, the Great Falls Public Schools Board of Trustees passed the Board Budget Committee’s recommendation not to include a levy request on this year’s ballot. The educational levy was a hot topic last year, but the Budget Committee found this year to be one of the “rosiest” budgets they’ve seen in the last decade.
That comes despite racking up “extraordinary expenses” this school year, mainly due to COVID-19. Budget Committee Chair Kim Skornogoski said that includes school cleanings, extra nurses, extra support for students in remote learning, and more.
“We have really extraordinary expenses this year that no one could have predicted, and so we have to look at all of the puzzle pieces to figure out how to respond to those increases,” Skornogoski explained. “Throughout the year, those numbers change. They change as the health insurance numbers come in, they change as raises are given to teachers and to other staff members, and then of course on the revenue side, they change, really, when levies pass, when the state legislature meets and makes adjustments for inflation, so the numbers are constantly changing.”
So with those extra expenses, how was the district able to produce one of the self-proclaimed “rosiest” budgets in recent memory? Brian Patrick is the committee’s Director of Business Operations. According to Skornogoski, he’s one of the people behind the numbers. Crunching, calculating, and making it all make sense to the other committee members.
I asked him how this happened. How, despite the unforeseen extra expenses that rode along with the pandemic, was the district able to arrive at such consent on Monday night, when Skornogoski proclaimed to the Board that a levy would not be necessary for this fiscal year?
Brian says it’s a combination of factors. “The federal stimulus money was very generous to schools,” he explained. “They realized that we did have a lot of extra costs and ongoing extra costs, whether it was cleaning or remote learning, and the federal money clearly covered that.”
But Patrick asserted that it wasn’t just federal assistance that made this happen, and Skornogoski agrees. She also attributed this to “smart budget decisions” by the district, while Patrick thanked the community support and the levy from last year for making this possible.
Skornogoski said she understands that the levy wasn’t supported by 100% of the community, but she hopes that people will appreciate that this year, the district won’t have to ask for any more money from the people. “Certainly we wouldn’t be where we’re at if we hadn’t passed a levy last year,” she said. “Other districts in the state are asking for levies this year, but we feel like we want to be responsible and prudent with local dollars, and we know that if we don’t need to ask for a levy, then we shouldn’t ask for a levy.”
Patrick also says that one thing the committee took into account when making this decision was the tough year financially that many Montanans have been subject to during the pandemic. He says that people and businesses have had to face so much adversity in the past year that asking them to fork over more money through another tax increase wouldn’t be appropriate.
As for the exact financial figures, there’s a maximum budget that can be obtained for the two districts (elementary and high school) within the Great Falls Public School district. In the high school district, that maximum is $415,000. In the elementary district, $54,000. He said that the GFPS is very close to the maximum budget for both figures. Patrick says that, while it’s a good thing that the district has received a lot of assistance from federal grants and programs, it also means that the committee has to keep an eye on the numbers over the next few years.
“We’ve got a lot of federal money that we have access to,” he explained. “The danger in that, though, is that federal money creates a structural imbalance, and the federal money will be here for a few more years, and then it will be gone. If we rely too heavily on it, we’ll put ourselves in a bad position when it actually is gone.”